Voir Dire

Voir dire (/ˈvwɑːr ˌdiər/) is a legal phrase that refers to a variety of procedures connected with jury trials. It originally referred to an oath taken by jurors to tell the truth (Latin: verum dicere), i.e., to say what is true, what is objectively accurate or subjectively honest, or both. (Wikipedia)

 

I remember reading something somewhere, it was probably a craft essay in a creative nonfiction class, where the writer talked about not finding the distant past interesting until they were older – something to that effect. In essence, what I remember is that the writer was saying that at some point those meaningless childhood memories become memories worth excavating. [I should also note that this reading wasn’t long ago; it was probably last semester.] And I remember silently disagreeing. There’s just too much from so long ago that I simply have no interest in. And a lot of it is stuff I found interesting at some point already – in my early 20s when everything was awful and I blamed my shitty shitty childhood for all of it. I combed through it all, on paper and in my head, and I held all of my hurts under a magnifying glass, assigning blame and shedding tears and residing in a dreadful state of feeling sorry for myself.

I really don’t like the girl I was in my late teens and early 20s. There are fragments of those years that I refuse to think about, quickly filing them away in the deepest recesses as soon as they float towards consciousness. During that class where I probably read the aforementioned essay, I tried to respond to a writing prompt by mining a period of time from back then. It physically hurt, and I could feel myself shutting down the memories. To say it was an ineffective writing exercise would be wrong, though, because I realized a few things. One, the period of time I was writing about was actually much, much shorter a timespan than I thought. Two, I made some really terrible mistakes – which I already knew, but I realized the significance of them in a larger sense. And three, one day I’m going to have to write about it.

While I’m not at a point where I want to revisit that time and write about it or even talk about it, that experience set off a small explosion of reminiscence and awareness in my past. Adding to those needling thoughts are some incidents that add kindling to whatever small fire is burning.

Like many of us “these days,” I keep finding out about deaths on social media. Over the past few months, I’ve learned of old friends’ deaths, both recent and not so recent. It’s always a bit staggering when you hear about them, even if it’s been, say, 20 years or so since you spoke to the person. The memories come flooding back, and they are accompanied by things like regret (why didn’t I ever see him again?), nostalgia (we had so much fun), and a kind of awe when you learn about the people they became in your absence.

One of the deaths I learned about was particularly weird, for it was a person who I wronged in that period of time I don’t like to think about. Someone who I worried occasionally that I would run into and have to own up to what I did. And yet, to think of them no longer in the world, and them having passed away years ago, makes me feel a little ill.

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Recently I had jury duty. Jury duty isn’t a big deal – I know this. I’ve had it once before, but never had to actually go in for anything. The issue for me was not knowing what to expect – that’s what always gets me. Not knowing where exactly to go, how things will go down, how long I’d be there for; it’s the uncertainties that I hate, though I’ve built a life on uncertainties.

After what felt like an eternity (and a brief overview of the upcoming activities), we filed into a courtroom. The judge reiterated the importance of jury duty, how it was our civic duty and necessary to retain the foundations of the Constitution, etc. I sat in the second row of the benches, fairly positive I wouldn’t be selected for questioning up in the main juror seats.

The rest is nothing sensational. The case seemed rather routine – battery, a bar fight, I gathered. But I couldn’t help but be struck by the way “truth” was thrown around, and by the way the prospective jurors responded to the questions. (Luckily I was excused.)

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“Truth” is hard for me to escape, and I’ve probably talked and written it to death many times over. But I just can’t get over how we throw the term around. The prospective jurors were quite earnest in their responses, just as many people are quite earnest and full of conviction when they discuss matters of “truth.” They need to know “the facts,” they say, then they’ll be able to make an accurate judgement about “the truth.”

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I keep reading this essay, “Finding Poems in my Own Labyrinth” by Emily Carr, because I just love it so much. And I keep lingering on this passage:

 

Consider the narrative drift and disruption that every day produces by chance: you participate in the reconstruction of the story not by filling in the gaps and elisions, but by [as a detective] appropriating whatever fragment is “useful” to you.

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What is “the truth” of those years I hate to think about? Or “the truth” of our relationships with others? If we’re all walking around, participating in reconstruction of endless stories, how can we be sure our truths are the truest?

I think about the idea of intentionally digging through the past, those childhood, teenage, or young adulthood memories I’ve dismissed or avoided, and it’s making more sense to me why we might return there. I don’t believe there are “facts” that I can gather that will help me come to a conclusion about who I was or why I was who I was, or even what the point of anything might be, but it’s starting to seem unfair to ignore them – not just to previous versions of me, but to those I’ve loved and lost, those whose lives I’ve been entangled with at some point or another. But to what end, I’m still not sure. Some sort of search for truth, but for whose benefit? And, if I’m doing that – really, authentically searching and/or writing and/or reconstructing – I have to take an oath regarding truth. That’s maybe the scariest part.

Another section of Carr’s essay:

Understanding and—as a consequence—forgiveness, takes place in large part through the composition of the poems…

Forgiving herself is what she’s talking about here. The forgiveness comes from the understanding. She may not be considering the “deep” past as I am, but she’s looking at a past that is inextricably linked to the now: “There is no story in which my failure to love my husband is not background. Everything I write comes out of this history.” She makes her own oaths as she writes – both the poems she speaks of and the essay itself. The best wisdom I gleaned from it:

(You don’t have to be brave but it helps to be unashamed.)

And in that wisdom I see the hulking figure that blocks many of my memories: shame.

Thus, to tell the truth of ourselves, we have to find a place for the shame. I don’t think “unashamed” is something I can be, but the shame must evolve.

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During voir dire, the attorneys ask a series of questions meant to ultimately help them decide who they don’t want on the panel. Searching for “voir dire” online provides a range of articles and tips for attorneys to help them have a well prepared voir dire. Something many of them mention that has nothing to do with the questions: observe the prospective jurors. Make judgements about their appearances, their nonverbal communication. It’s an art form, it seems, and the entire process exposes the depths of the individuals beyond their answers to the questions – their “truths.”

I can’t help but think this is a larger metaphor for how we respond to our supposed truths. A form of enlightenment, I think, is recognizing that our own truths are always subjective. They change, if we let them, which is a natural course. We live our lives in fragments, reconstructing our past and our present based on what we take from every moment. And no matter how tightly we cling to our “objective” truths, there will always be a part of us that unconsciously betrays us.

I think that’s worth exploring. Someday, anyway.